WASHINGTON, Aug. 19, 2010— -- The withdrawal of the last U.S. combat brigade from Iraq marked a major milestone in the seven year, five month conflict and has been hailed as a sign the U.S.-led war could soon be over.
But hours after the 440 members of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division rolled across the Kuwaiti border, unfurled American flags and lit cigars in celebration of their success, military officials cautioned that the war -- and the potential for combat -- in Iraq is not yet finished.
"The combat mission is still under way," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell told MSNBC. "It will not formally change until the end of the month."
The U.S. still has around 52,000 troops in Iraq after Wednesday's withdrawal, but that will be trimmed to 50,000 noncombat troops by the end of this month. They will work largely behind the scenes, training, advising and assisting their Iraqi peers but won't be entirely free from danger – or combat.
"I don't think anybody should be under illusions our forces will not be armed. They will be armed," Morell said. "They very well could be in combat situations even after the end of the month."
The words are a striking juxtaposition with the scene playing out along the Iraq-Kuwait border and headlines in major newspapers across the U.S. They also serve as a reminder of the previous signs and signals of a possible end to the violent conflict in Iraq that now ring hollow.